Bloomington Tent Dwellers Face ‘Eviction’ As Restaurant Prepares To Open
Jamie stands shirtless in a vacant lot on Bloomington’s west side. He’s wearing jeans his brother gave him. Behind him are flattened tents, blankets and clothing spread out on a floor of asphalt, concrete and weeds as the sun dries out these essentials after recent rainstorms.
The nondescript lot is what Jamie and about a half dozen other people call home. It will soon be home to a Panda Express restaurant. The Bloomington City Council has approved plans for the restaurant to build at the location along West Market Street.
The property runs along a busy highway not far from the interstate. It’s surrounded by gas stations, restaurants and other businesses. It’s not a residential area by any stretch, except for this tent city.
Some social service providers in McLean County say tent cities have been a problem in Bloomington for decades. Advocates say the tent dwellers’ plight points to a greater problem that’s not been addressed.
As the state and federal governments remove eviction moratoriums tied to the coronavirus pandemic, these residents will soon face their own type of eviction.
Jamie is 33. He doesn’t give his last name. He’s been living in a tent in this vacant lot for nearly three years.
Jamie’s brother checks on him regularly and gives him clothing and a place to shower.
“He came out here and (said) ‘Jamie get in the car,’ Where are we going, Disneyland?’ Jamie asked. “’No, we are going to the house. You are going to get yourself cleaned up.”
Jamie said he was staying at the Salvation Army Safe Harbor shelter in Bloomington. He said he went to work in Texas and had to come back to Bloomington to help his brother. He said the Salvation Army now won’t take him back. Jamie has other people looking after him.
His cousin Chris has been living in the encampment for a few weeks. “I came out here and found my cousin and I’m not going to leave him out here by himself,” Chris said.
Chris said he’s concerned for his cousin’s safety. He said he has sent Jamie to the hospital three times because of seizures. Chris said there are always people looking for trouble there. Jamie said he’s done drywall since he was 14 and thought he had a chance to return to work.
“I do have my old boss’ number and he told me once I get myself together and get my medication and all that, he said he’d put me right back to work,” said Jamie, adding he takes medications for seizures and for his mental health. Now, he said his old boss doesn’t work for himself anymore. Jamie is not optimistic he’ll call back.
Jamie said he gets by on his father’s monthly social security check and whatever money he can get panhandling. Jamie said he once made $80 in 20 minutes.
Bob is basically in the same bind as Jamie. Bob is 58. He stands next to Jamie, sporting a scraggly, graying beard with a face mask under his chin and a vintage Chicago Cubs T-shirt. Bob said he’s been living in the tent encampment for a couple years. He has done flooring for a living but can’t get onto the ground floor of the labor market.
“You give me a carpet I can lay it,” Bob beamed, but said he can’t find work either. He said the shelters won’t take him because of his criminal record. He said he gets monthly disability checks, adding needs a place to get cleaned up to interview for a job.
Those services are available in Bloomington-Normal, including from a church organization that feeds the homeless. Abundant Life Church in Bloomington delivers nonperishable food to the homeless population in Bloomington-Normal every week. The church also runs a food and clothing pantry and serves hot lunches every day.
Pastor Roy Koonce said he’s worried about whether those living in the tent city will have some place to go.
“That’s a great question and I don’t have an answer what they’ll do,” Koonce said “I know that if they come here, we’ll do the best we can to help them.”
Koonce said the church doesn’t have a shelter, but will offer any help it can to anyone who shows up at their door. Koonce said the church has rules, but won’t turn anyone away permanently.
“I’m 68 years old and for the first time in my life I feel like I have my purpose,” Koontz said. “I love doing what we are doing. I love helping people. I love the success rate.
“It breaks my heart when I see somebody who doesn’t make it.”
The two homeless shelters in Bloomington, Safe Harbor and Home Sweet Home Ministries, said they don’t turn away anyone who needs a place to stay unless their history or behavior suggests they are a threat to staff or other residents. But the two shelters did have limited capacity for much of the last year because of pandemic restrictions.
Koonce said he’d like to see the City of Bloomington do more to help its homeless residents. He said police generally try to avoid the problem.
“A lot of the vagrants and homeless sleep in the parking garage because all of them have a little heat coming through to keep the floors from freezing up (during the winter). The police, all they do is go through there and run these guys off. They don’t arrest them,” Koonce said.
Koonce suggested an arrest would help some homeless people start a process for getting medical care and other treatment.
Interim Bloomington Police Chief Greg Scott said officers can’t arrest anyone if the homeless residents are not committing a crime.
“What they are doing out there is not specifically illegal,” Scott explained. “The state of Illinois and even the U.S. Supreme Court have made some rulings that have said it’s their First Amendment right to do those things.”
Scott said property owners have to file a trespassing report before police will arrest anyone. In the case of the proposed restaurant, Scott said no one has filed a complaint. Scott said the homeless population needs social services, not a police intervention.
"That doesn't really help anything," Scott said.
A Bloomington City Council member said he’d agrees jail is not the answer for people without a roof over their heads. Jeff Crabill said the goal should be permanent housing, adding he’s not sure what the city can do to better facilitate that — other than calling attention to the problem and encouraging more landlords to rent to people through a rapid rehousing program.
“They just don’t want to have somebody in their apartment or house who is homeless. There is a stigma to that. I think some landlords want to avoid that if they can,” Crabill said.
The PATH Crisis Center in Bloomington recently started a rehousing program. The nonprofit got federal CARES Act funding to provide short-term housing to people during the pandemic to limit the risk of spreading COVID-19.
Karen Zangerle, recently retired as the nonprofit group’s executive director, agreed tent cities have been around for decades in Bloomington. She said there’s often a certain culture in these vagrant communities that can make relocation difficult.
“People who are in tent cities like it because they don’t have anybody telling them what to do, they don’t have any responsibilities to follow,” Zangerle said. “It’s kind of like a big camping trip.”
Zangerle said PATH has outreach workers meet with tent dwellers and other homeless people to discuss their options for a permanent place to stay. She said some welcome the help and some won’t.
“What eventually happens is a certain group of them that will find a new place and they’ll move on,” said Zangerle, adding much of the tent city population moves south when the weather turns colder.
Where to go from here
Tent city dweller Bob said he plans to move soon, regardless of the restaurant’s timeline. “When it gets cold, we gotta go somewhere,” he said, but added he doesn’t know where he plans to go.
Jamie said once the proposed restaurant moves in, he’ll probably end up across the street behind the McDonald’s where he used to live.
“That’s the only other place we can go,” Jamie said.
Jamie and Bob both scoff at the perception they don’t want help.
“We tried and tried and tried and tried and tried and they’ve shunned us,” Jamie said “As long as we take care of each other and make sure we’ve all got something to eat, something to drink we are OK.
“We’ll make it one way or another,” Bob said.
Where and how they will make it remains an open question. These two tent city dwellers figure they will need to rely on their experience and survival instincts when their home of the last several years gets uprooted for a fast-food franchise.
It’s not clear when Panda Express plans to take over the west Bloomington site to start building. The company did not return messages seeking comment.